What You Didn’t Know About May Day
The UK has just celebrated a Bank Holiday, otherwise known as May Day, but how many of you know the history behind it?
May Day on May 1 is an ancient Northern Hemisphere spring festival and usually a public holiday. It is also a traditional spring holiday in many cultures.
The earliest May Day celebrations appeared in pre-Christian times, with the Floralia, festival of Flora, the Roman goddess of flowers, held April 27 during the Roman Republic era.
It is also associated with the Gaelic Beltane, most commonly held on April 30. The day was a traditional summer holiday in many pre-Christian European pagan cultures. While February 1 was the first day of Spring, May 1 was the first day of summer; hence, the summer solstice on June 25 (now June 21) was Midsummer.
The day is most associated with villages and towns celebrating fertility of the soil, livestock and people – and with village fairs and community gatherings.
As Christianity took over Europe, the religious element of the pagan holidays was replaced with secular celebrations. Some Roman Catholic organisations celebrate the Virgin Mary on May 1, with a ‘May crowning’ of the Blessed Virgin. In 1978, the Labour government in the UK introduced the May Day Bank Holiday to the national calendar.
In the late 19th century, May Day was chosen as the date for International Workers’ Day by the Socialists and Communists of the Second International to commemorate the Haymarket affair in Chicago. In those countries that celebrate International Workers’ Day, the day may also be referred to as “May Day” but it is a different celebration from the traditional May Day.
Although May Day is traditionally a European spring celebration, it is marked by some countries as Labour Day or International Workers’ Day.
The History Behind May Day:
For the druids of the British Isles, 1 May was important because it coincided with the festival of Beltane, the Gaelic May Day festival which marked a halfway point between the spring equinox and the summer solstice. It was customary to start bonfires, thought to lend life to the spring and summer sun.
Smoke and ashes were believed to have protective powers, while people and cattle would walk around the fire or leap over the flames for good luck. May Day brought together both customs from the Floralia and Beltane festivals.
Historically, Beltane was widely observed throughout Ireland, Scotland and the Isle of Man. In Irish it is Bealtaine, in Scottish Gaelic, Bealltainn, and in Manx Gaelic, Boaltinn or Boaldyn. It is one of the four Gaelic seasonal festivals – along with Samhain, Imbolc and Lughnasadh – and is similar to the Welsh Calan Mai.
Beltane celebrations had largely died-out by the mid-20th century, although some of its customs continued and in some places it has been revived as a cultural event. Since the latter 20th century, Celtic neopagans and Wiccans have observed Beltane, or something based on it, as a religious holiday. Neopagans in the Southern Hemisphere often celebrate Beltane at the other end of the year – November the 1st.
By the Middle Ages, maypoles were popular in England, as well as areas of Wales, Scotland and Ireland. Deep-rooted in Germanic pagan tradition, maypoles were traditionally made from birch and brought together communities, but also caused inter-village rivalry.
During the rise of Protestantism in the 16th century, maypoles were increasingly disapproved of by some who saw them as immoral. Under the reign of Edward VI in England and Wales, Protestant Aglicanism was declared by state religion and under the Reformation, many maypoles – such as the famous Cornhill maypole of London – were destroyed.
When Mary I ascended the throne after Edward’s death, she reinstated Roman Catholicism as the state faith and the practice of maypoles was reinstated.
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